New York Noir is a documentary about the experience and influence of African-Americans in the history and culture of New York City. It will be shown on the Documentary Channel this week and it is available for purchase online. I spoke to director Marino Amoruso and his colleague from Little Dizzy Home Video, Michael Sutton.
After Barack Obama was elected, some people said there was no longer any need to make a special effort to study black history.
Marino Amoruso: It actually has helped to get a better look at black history. Since Obama was elected and even through the campaign, articles in the newspaper compared him to other firsts in African-American history. Even in the sports section they wrote that without Jackie Robinson Obama’s candidacy would not have been possible. There are black firsts in American history that wouldn’t be written about if he had not been running. The good thing about it is that we’re getting exposed to a whole segment of African-American history beyond Martin Luther King Day.
Michael Sutton: A whole other generation will be re-introduced to this history because of this election. Obama’s story is everyone’s story. Growing up, we always saw the picture of the white Jesus hanging next to the white President. He provides a whole new image of life.
I was glad to hear more in your film about a woman who has always fascinated me, Madame C.J. Walker, who is significant in women’s history as well as black history.
MA: Talk about having two strikes against you — the prospects at that time for black women were domestic help. This woman saw a need, fulfilled a need, and also she had an impact on the self-esteem of black women at that time. They were portrayed as ugly but she told them, “You are beautiful; you’re different but beautiful.” She did not just see a need market-wise and fill; she did a lot for them.
MS: She was the first African-American woman millionaire in the United States. Her hair care products care paved the way for African-American companies and items specially designed for those customers. What she did was important because she cared about making products that were good for the hair and skin, not harsh.
Mr. Amoruso, what brought you to this project?
MA: I did a film on the pride and passion of Italians in America, just to say, “Hey look, we’re not all in the mob.” When I was researching that I found out that some of the most prominent black musicians got their start in speakeasies. Gangsters didn’t care what color you were, they were not intending to make a statement about civil rights. They just wanted to get the music. That led me to do a show about the Harlem renaissance, and that led to finding out more about the African-American community in NY. This is almost like the third in a series.
The research is there if you look for it. It is not in every social studies book but you can find it. I have a very large newsreel archive that I have been gathering over the years to make these films, 1200 hours of newsreel footage. I had all the footage of the World War I outfit; I didn’t even realize I had it. Not just in this film but in a lot of stuff I do, across the board, any ethnicities, you’re always finding material that counters stereotypes, the naïveté at different times of people about different ethnic groups. It is even more pronounced in the African-American culture because they had no defense; they could be shot or hung for standing up for themselves. And there is so much people do not know. They think of slavery as being a Southern thing. People will be surprised to know that Broadway was physically broadened by slave labor and there were more slave traders in New York than any other city except for Charleston.
MS: The piece on Malcolm X in our film is very extensive and many people have said it is one of the best depictions they have seen. Malcolm started out militant and angry but came to understand that the country has to live up to the idea it was based on that all men are created equal. He understood that the best way to get good jobs is to get educated and become VP of a company, that’s what Martin Luther King always stood for.
MA: I look at it as American history. It’s all American history. My favorite quote from Martin Luther King was, “We all came over in different boats but we’re all in the same boat now.” We all face stereotypes You can’t shove things down people’s throats, and that’s how King was smart. One step leads to the next.
One of my heroes has always been Jackie Robinson. My grandfather had the racial views of his time but he was a Dodger fan, and he might not have wanted Robinson to marry his daughter but he respected the man. Step 2, my father went farther toward equality and Step 3 — I grew up thinking, “I’m going to be like Jackie Robinson” — I didn’t see a difference, I just wanted to play like him.
Michael Landon Jr.’s new film is The Velveteen Rabbit, based on the classic book by Margery Williams about the stuffed toy bunny loved so dearly that it becomes “real.”
The movie opens in select cities this Friday, February 27, and will be out on DVD next month. Landon was interviewed by Guideposts, and I also had the great pleasure of talking with him about the film.
It must have taken a lot of courage to adapt a book that has such passionately devoted fans!
It was very daunting. One of the things though that I wanted to do that’s quite different than Margery Williams’ source material was that she tells the story form the rabbit’s point of view and there have been sweet little films that covered that ground already. I wanted to give the boy’s point of view and combine live action and animation.
In our story, the boy, called Toby, is sent away for the holidays with his stern grandmother. He finds the attic with all the forgotten toys and this little rabbit leads him to this imaginary world that he loves.
Is the movie live action or animated?
Both! It is live action, shot in Montreal, until Toby goes to the imaginary world, and that part is animated. We wanted to try to give it a period kind of feel because it takes place in 1910. We wanted to keep that feel through 2D and update it a little with 3D. Feature Films for Families owns an animation company and they spearheaded the animation, which took over three years. The cast includes Ellen Burstyn, Tom Skerritt, and Jane Seymour. The live action scenes were done more than three years ago.
Wow, so the kid who played Toby must be practically grown up!
He’s a teenager now! Wild to hear him.
Why has this story been so powerful for so many people over the generations?
The theme for me is that love makes us real. That’s a theme that transcends time. There’s definitely something for everyone in this film and something to connect the generations, just as it is when you read the story to children. Any parents and grandparents who see this, they’ll leave inspired and not only entertained but want to be closer and love better.
Did you have a special toy when you were a kid?
Charlie, a monkey! He was by far my favorite, he was my bud. He would still be with me but my mom got rid of all my stuffed animals, which devastated me.
What films and film-makers inspired you?
In terms of overall storytelling ability, Spielberg. No one is as versatile as he is. He can can tell a story like “E.T.” and then do “Jaws” and “Schindler’s List.” He’s on the top of my list. I like visionary directors like Ridley Scott. He is stunning. His background in production design makes his films something to behold, mesmerizing. Chris Nolan is a genius film-maker; I’m blown away by him. Going back years, Frank Capra is one of my all-time favorite classic directors, who tells a story that is not only compelling but makes me want to be a better person. That’s more of what I set out to do with this film and my others, too.
What makes you laugh?
My kids crack me up, not necessarily on purpose! And I love the old Pink Panther films with Peter Sellers.
What are you doing next?
I’m finishing up a novel, The Silent Gift, co-writing with Cindy Kelley, with whom I co-wrote “The Velveteen Rabbit” and other films. Coming in late spring early summer I have “The Shunning,” an Amish story based on a novel by Beverly Lewis and I am also working on “When Calls the Heart” with Maggie Grace. I have a history with both of those authors and it is wonderful to be able to continue to develop those relationships.
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The third in the award-winning series of Gustafer Yellowgold is coming out on DVD March 17, featuring guest artists Lisa Loeb and Wilco’s John Stirratt and Pat Sansone.
These tuneful treats from artist/songwriter Morgan Taylor are family favorites, with singable songs and colorful visuals. Gustafer is a yellow guy from the sun who comes to Earth to make some friends, giving him a chance to explore and enjoy a wide range of characters and locations. It is a lot of fun for kids ages 3-8 and their families, gentle and charming without being sugary.
I have one DVD to give away to the first person who sends me an email at email@example.com with “Gustafer” in the subject line. Good luck!